Sacred Peaks Far From the Din of the Dusty World

THE Chinese have always loved their beautiful, often oddly formed mountains, and have painted them with extraordinary genius. Many Chinese were persuaded that spirits haunted their hills and thus ought to be honored and placated. Such notions were fostered by their shamans and Taoists, the latter claiming that certain heights were the dwelling places of the immortals. All this lore, to some degree, influenced the artists - or some of them. Other painters were influenced more by the obvious beauty of the mountains, and by ideas of solitude and purity which came to them there, far from the baser attractions of the dusty world.

The Chinese were not mountaineers, but they came to know these places, and eventually certain peaks (five in particular) were considered sacred.

In the 11th century, under the Northern Sung dynasty, the artist Kuo Hsi wrote his country's most famous essay on the subject of landscape painting, this in a land which has boasted for many centuries the greatest library of artistic commentary extant. His became the standard work, and still commands great interest and respect.

His essay begins: ``Why does a virtuous man take delight in landscapes? It is for these reasons: that in a rustic retreat he may nourish his nature; that amid the carefree play of streams and rocks, he may take delight; that he may constantly meet in the country fishermen, woodcutters, and hermits, and see the soaring of the cranes, and hear the crying of the monkeys. The din of the dusty world and the locked-in-ness of human habitations are what human nature habitually abhors; while, on the contrary, h aze, mist, and the haunting spirit of the mountains are what human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find.

``Having no access to the landscapes, the lover of forest and stream, the friend of mist and haze, enjoys them only in his dreams. How delightful then to have a landscape painted by a skillful hand!''

After more of these reflections, Kuo Hxi, he himself a talented painter, assures his reader that there are different ways of painting landscapes: large, without being superfluous, or very small and still lacking nothing.

The Chinese not only painted their beautiful country but they had, in their own way, mapped it. There are topographical studies of the mountains, often on steles in bas-relief, and preserved for us by rubbings.

The illustrations shown here are from a handscroll by an artist who was highly regarded in his time (the end of the Ming and on into the Manchu Qing dynasties), but never had anything like the stature of artist Kuo Hsi. Wang Hui (1632-1717), a respected traditional artist, was commissioned in 1691 to portray an official tour of the great emperor Kangxi, who was going on a long journey south of Beijing.

This particular segment of the painting series shows his progress through the province of Shandong, a predominantly mountainous region, containing the sacred mountain Mt. Tai, which is much associated with Confucius, so doubly important to the Chinese.

Born under the Ming, and continuing long into the Qing Dynasty, Wang Hui was one of the ``Four Wangs,'' four successful and gifted artists who happened to have the same surname.

WANG Hui was especially famed for being able to paint convincingly in a great manner of styles, after famous masters of the past, something the Chinese liked to see. He was not associated with the freer avant-garde movements in painting that came into vogue at the fall of the dynasty - but his very correctness and uncontroversial ability made him an ideal choice for the emperor Kangxi. The colors are bright and beautiful - turquoise and malachite (actually made of these stones, ground up). T he mountains are shown as rugged and towering, also inspiring in a mundane way.

The commission took three years to execute, and resulted in unusually long and high handscrolls. Wang Hui himself did the landscape, his students and disciples the figures, animals, and buildings - forts, temples, shrines, pavilions, gates, and triumphal arches, many vividly colored. The landscape is bewitching though conventional with its cloud-encircled peaks, deep, ravines, its rocks and trees. Going south from Beijing, the imperial party would have to pass through this initial stage (Shandong Provin ce) before touring Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou.

Shandong is mountainous, and it was necessary to show its lofty heights, giving a feeling of grandeur, which the artists thoroughly understood. Though the scroll was only a few inches high, these pictures could be hundreds of inches long. The result here is engaging and decorative.

It is both a documentary and a piece of propaganda, rich in flattery for the powerful emperor, who wanted it for these ends. Everyone understood that - the Manchus (the Qing people came from Manchuria, of whom the emperor was one), the occupied Chinese who chafed under the Manchu yoke, and the collaborators accepted it.

Kangxi was an extremely able ruler, remaining on the Dragon Throne for 60 years (until 1722). The second monarch of the Qing, he established the new dynasty, pacified the country, and quelled all traces of rebellion from the conquered Ming. The old ways of the northern frontiers (the territory of the Manchurians, a Tartar people) were abandoned, the newcomers becoming assimilated as rapidly as possible - they adored Chinese culture. Kangxi himself is probably most widely known abroad for his patronage o f porcelain and such arts. Shrewd, a good organizer, decisive, he traveled this vast country incessantly, learning its ways. With his grandson, Qian Long, who also ruled for 60 years, the Manchu power was made so irrevocable that it endured till 1911.

The emperor, a foreigner in a country always xenophobic, identified himself with the national attitudes, so that here in this scroll, the journey culminates with arrival at the summit of Mount Tai, where Confucius was always deeply honored. We see him engaged in the appropriate rites and ceremonies for the occasion, knowing this would reinforce his standing with the Chinese.

Though the barbarian's world did not know it then, Kangxi was certainly one of the most powerful and important figures of the world in the 18th century. There was almost no understanding between the East and the West, and it was China, chiefly, which desired this isolation. Yet, here Wang Hui shows us an idealized ruler and idealized court, and a journey which appears perfect - it cannot but give us great pleasure to see it, as it did the public for which it was intended - the inhabitants of the Flowery Land, the great kingdom at the heart of the world.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Sacred Peaks Far From the Din of the Dusty World
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today